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Highwire Theater Without A Net: L.A. Café Plays at Ruskin Group Theater

It could be called high-wire theater without a net. It has been called “the fastest theatre in L.A.” but it actually is L.A. Café Plays, in which five one-acts are written, rehearsed and performed in just 10 1/2 hours.

They are the brainchild of the Ruskin Group Theatre at Santa Monica Airport, which has been doing these monthly shows since October, 2003.

What follows is a first-hand account of this seat-of-your-pants theatrical adventure by playwright Kate Mayfield, who has written several of these instant one-acts; director Rod McLachlan, who has directed five of these plays, each time with actors he has not worked with before; and actor David Bosnak, a veteran of several of the Café pieces.

Kate Mayfield, Playwright

We meet at 9 a.m. on a Sunday at the Back on Broadway Restaurant-Café in Santa Monica. The Sunday morning traffic from Silverlake isn’t bad; on the empty freeway I feel like I’m traveling to another world. Groggy writers hover at the front door of the café. Greetings and introductions are subdued; we are here to get something done. Sitting in a café, we each have four hours to write a play set in a café.

We gather like a secret society in a back room at the restaurant. Rules are laid out: the play must be set in a café, there will be no light cues, no set changes. Blank manila envelopes are thrown in rows on the floor in front of us. There are two envelopes for each writer, each containing the picture of an actor. The writer grabs two envelopes, fortune cookies that will tell the play.

The first time I did the café plays my computer was on the blink. I hand scribbled my play and had just enough time to re-write it legibly with a few changes before the director picked it up from me. It was far too long — I didn’t know how many formatted pages my handwriting represented. In the six or so times I’ve participated since then, I’ve refined my techniques, the computer is up and going, and I’ve learned a few tricks: keep the plays under seven pages or the actors can’t memorize the lines in time, monologues can’t be memorized either…avoid them.

I take the envelopes to my table (so far it has always been the same table — I’m not superstitious, but I stick with what works). I order my breakfast (egg sandwich, with only one egg and one slice of bacon, and cheese, no California vegetable nonsense — a breakfast sandwich needs to be thin). And then I open the envelopes and look at the pictures. For me the key to the play is the pictures (Actors, take note: the person I see in your picture is the person you shall be). I look at the faces for a while. I sip my coffee. Who are these people? What do these people have to say to each other? No point in starting too soon. Once I start, there’s no time to turn back.

My breakfast comes. I begin to get nervous. Maybe nothing will happen today, maybe I won’t have an idea. I look around. Everyone else is writing furiously; the old people at the next table are talking too loudly-they need a new computer — who cares?

And then, magically, one of the pictures says something. Sometimes, it’s a joke. Sometimes it is fabulously bizarre. Sometimes it’s only hello. But whatever I hear, that’s where we start. The rest of the morning is no different from any other writing. There are moments of flow, and stick. The only difference is it’s four hours of agony rather than four months (or years). And when it is done, and the producer arrives to pick up the plays, it is out of my hands.

The writers are excluded from rehearsals. Which means I have the afternoon free to wonder what the director and actors are doing with the material. But going to the performances, I’m excited. The directors and actors might not always make the choices I would make, but it’s fun to have your play done in a day, to get results immediately. For a form of writing where there is usually years of lag time between writing and production, the L.A. Café Plays provide the kind of instant gratification that is rarely extended to playwrights.

Kate Mayfield has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Her play Parlez Vous Black Angel was a finalist in the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild’s Julie Harris Award.

Rod McLachlan, Director

It’s one o’clock and the directors, actors, and stage managers of the L.A. Café Plays project exchange nods and smiles in the offices of the Ruskin Group Theater. We are awaiting the arrival of Café Plays producer Markus Flanagan, who will lay out envelopes on the floor, so that directors can randomly choose their play and actors for the day. Both play and actors come as a package, giving directors the feeling of being in a theatrical version of “The Iron Chef.” The directors are given a bunch of raw materials and about six hours to bring to life a short play that was just penned.

We scoop up our envelope, identify and introduce ourselves to our actors, run to our rehearsal rooms and read the play with our casts. It is right after the first read-through that I offer a silent prayer of thanks that I don’t have to perform, just direct. A few hours of staging and suggestions, and then its my actors’ asses on the line. I just get to sit and bite my nails and yearn for them to do well.

Years of performing in plays helps me to quickly identify the style and tone of the play we’ve just been given. The virtues of simplicity, clarity and pure storytelling are set in high relief when doing the Café Plays. It takes great concentration to stick to clear playable actions and intentions; when you only have ten minutes to tell a story, everything must count, everything must be fully lived and felt.

The paradox of doing these plays this way is that you violate everything you’re told as a student. You make snap decisions, you work directly for “results,” you find yourself giving directions like “Be madder” or “You’re not sad enough,” which would normally be resisted by any actor. But when you have no time, the actors are grateful for any help. The paradox lies in the fact that by stripping everyone of almost all possibility of control over the performance, by just allowing the barest staging and scene work, the performers rise to unbelievable heights. They create stirring and hilarious moments out of their own need to perform. Not out of directorial genius, or hours of preparation, or great production values. Just guts and a dedication to making theater.

I’ve never found anything more inspiring.

Rod McLachlan is an actor/director with extensive acting credits on Broadway and regional theater, including South Coast Rep and Williamstown Theater Festival, as well as film and television credits that include Spiderman II, Magnolia and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

David Bosnak, Actor

“Time, time, time, is on my side. Yes it is.”

Mick Jagger may have written anthems for a generation, but he was as far off the mark from the L.A. Café Plays as one could ever be. Time, the commodity that is fleeting or crawling, lapsing and surrendering, but ever moving forward is public enemy number one when performing in this Banzai, kamikaze theatrical sprint.

When you have only five hours from the moment you are handed a script to performing it in front of a sold-out house, you no longer have the luxury of second guessing yourself.

“You got that moment, great, let’s move on.” It’s hard enough to simply try and memorize 10 pages of dialogue in that time, let alone break it down with Chekhovian deconstructionalism. “What? How long? Already?”

Time can be an actor’s best friend and ally. It allows choices we make to percolate and develop, subtleties brought to life. It also allows for all our bad habits to show themselves, excessive analysis and mistrust in our instincts.

We don’t trust ourselves, we think we’re boring. We feel that if we push just a little, if we’re bigger or stretch our reality, the audience will see what we’re doing. The reality is, of course, the opposite, but tell that to Lucille Ball or Jim Carrey.

From the initial hellos to the final curtain, there is scarcely enough time to cook a Thanksgiving turkey, and yet an entire theatrical experience takes place. Something Stanislavski used to work at for half a year. The work all takes place on spin cycle and everyone is hyper aware, yet the calm of resignation to inevitability and the knowledge that it will all be over in a few hours allows for great things to come out of the frenzy.

The producers are there to magically supply almost any desired prop or need, so all the actors and directors need to think about is bringing the text to life. The collaboration and partnership yields amazing results, and trust must be instantly forged and absolutely relied upon. Choices one would never think to make or instincts normally suppressed become the core of the performance. And the beauty is, it is good. This process teaches us that we are enough without gilding the lily. So I guess Mick may have been right after all.

David Bosnak is an actor with stage, television and film credits in Los Angeles and New York and is a founding member of Ruskin.The next “L.A. Café Plays” are at 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. Sunday, May 15 at Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. Tickets are $10. Call (310) 397-3244 or go to http://www.ruskingrouptheatre.com.

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